Federal Appeals Court Will Hear Player's Claims Against Dorrance

Former Tar Heel soccer player Melissa Jennings ’00 may yet have her day in court.

Less than two months after a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a judgment shielding women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance ’74 from a jury trial on Jennings’ claims of sexual harassment, the same court agreed to rehear the appeal en banc. That means all 12 of the court’s judges will convene in Richmond, Va., in October to hear oral arguments and decide whether Jennings’ case merits a jury trial.

The decision by a majority of the courts’ judges effectively vacates the original 2-1 decision rejecting Jennings’ appeal.

“In essence, we are back to where it was when it first came to this court on appeal,” said a spokesman for the court’s clerk’s office.

Jennings and former team captain Debbie Keller ’96 sued Dorrance and the University in 1998. They said the coach created a sexually hostile environment by repeatedly asking his players about their sex lives.

Keller settled her suit two years ago, and Jennings appeared to have lost her appeal in April. Though Dorrance and the University admitted the coach’s actions were “inappropriate” and “unacceptable,” 4th Circuit Judges Karen Williams and James Dever found the coach at most responsible for “offensive utterances” and “second-hand harassment.”

“Such lapses in linguistic gentility do not necessarily equal a sexually hostile educational environment,” they wrote.

However, Judge M. Blane Michael’s dissenting opinion on the appeal appears to have convinced his colleagues to take another look at the case.

“He was a forty-five-year-old man probing into the sexual activities of young women, some of whom, like Jennings, were as young as 17,” Michael wrote. “There is easily a jury question here.”

Michael further noted that 18 months elapsed from the time Jennings first complained to University officials until Dorrance’s eventual reprimand. The judge said a reasonable jury likely would find “deliberate indifference” on the part of the University.

After the October hearing, the appeals court either could uphold the federal district court’s summary judgment in favor of Dorrance and the University or remand the case back to district court for a jury trial, according to the spokesman in the clerk’s office.

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